“Everybody understands the obvious meaning of the world struggle in which we are engaged. We are defending freedom against tyranny and are trying to preserve justice against a system which has, demonically, distilled injustice and cruelty out of its original promise of a higher justice.”
These are the opening words of theologian Reinhold Neibuhr’s 1952 treatise, “The Irony of American History,” written as the Cold War between the Soviet Union (aka Russia) and the NATO-rooted West, including the U.S. was reaching its peak. Called “the supreme American theologian of the 20th century,” Neibuhr (1892-1971) was a powerful influence in that era, insisting on something that was glossed over in subsequent periods, the existence of active evil that operates at all levels of human engagement.
Of course, for a number of reasons, his insight is spot on for dealing with the situation the world now faces. With Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine two of its core elements are again at the forefront: the “world struggle,” on the one hand, and its basic challenge of “defending freedom against tyranny.”
How lulled by less definitive events, at least for those not paying attention, we’d become about what’s most basic to our nation’s and humanity’s mission, and so swiftly brought into stark relief by Putin’s invasion.
Indeed, if anything defines the egregious error of Putin’s action, it may be how quickly it caused the kind of reaction from the NATO-rooted West we’ve seen in the last month. Yes, Putin has awakened not only the political and military zeal of the democratic West, but its most basic moral commitments, as well.
The personal courage demonstrated by Ukrainian president V. Zelenskiy (“I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition”) has not only stifferned the resolve of millions of his own countrymen, but of the entire Western world, as well.
As the images of the Russian assault, in all its ugly, cruel and utterly destructive manifestations, are broadcast around the world, the outrage and utter contempt engendered has penetrated everywhere, even deep into Russia itself.
Indeed, this is the first time a Cold War-like aggression by Russia has been so widely documented in real time by both media institutions and individuals with their smart phones, and this is having a profound anti-war effect. It is something that we can be confident Putin did not calculate, as with his failure to calculate the direct Ukrainian resistance.
With all the eyes and ears we now have out there in the world, maybe war as we’ve known it and as Putin is trying to execute it now will simply no longer be viable. Something, anything, has to be better than such egregious human carnage, especially when the whole world gets to see it.
Who knew there was a rock-solid moral streak so near to the surface in so many people once aroused? Putin’s worst miscalculation may be just that: No, Putin, the West has not become morally degenerate, as you suggest. It had possibly become complacent, even allowing for the election as president in the U.S. of one of the most utterly degenerate sociopaths in its history, but the Ukrainian invasion has changed all that.
At least for now. President Biden has been outright brilliant catching the wave of the global moral outrage, and as much as the media might be incited to protest (by whom, I’m not sure) his impromptu coda to his powerful speech in Poland last weekend, his instincts were correct in forcefully asserting that a man of Putin’s brutality should not be allowed to stay in power, anytime anywhere.
Who the hell could argue otherwise?
The question for all freedom-loving people, of the kind that Niebuhr spoke to 70 years ago, is where do we go from here. If Putin is rebuffed in Ukraine, then what becomes of the new-found moral strength in the West, in each and every one of us?
Citing and praising Niebuhr, President Obama once wrote that while there’s serious evil in the world, and while “we should be humble and modest in striving to eliminate it,” nevertheless, “but we shouldn’t use the existence of evil, hardship and pain as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.”